Ethics in Tangents: Part 2 – Ethicality and False sense of Obligation of Producing Children


What follows is modified and significantly expanded from one of my (long) tweets, but it contains doubts/conjectures that I have had for a long time, and which I have articulated at various places in different words.

How ethical is the decision to have a child? If it sounds weird, by it, I mean, do prospective parents really have a right to bring children to life, without seeking (the prospective children’s) permission? Perhaps the elaboration sounds even weirder, but given that a hitherto unborn person cannot ‘regret’ not being born, but an alive person – depending on how life treats him/her – could end up very unhappy and in pain, it seems that every time parents decide to have a child, they are risking pain and unhappiness to the child despite having the option of not taking such risk. What to me makes this very tricky is that the impact of a decision taken by two (or more, in case of Indian families) people affects a totally different person!

To give an analogy:

If you are given a choice to press or not press a button, which would totally randomly give either a chocolate or a pin prick to someone else who is sound asleep (and is thus, neither experiencing pain nor pleasure), what would you do?

For me, the ethical choice would be to not press the button. It might be argued that “but then there is also a chance that the person would get the chocolate”! But remember, putting up that argument still entails taking a decision on someone else’s behalf whose disposition we just do not know! How do we know such a person would prefer chocolate to avoidance of a pin prick? However, if I do not press the button, the person remains asleep, and would never regret not being able to get the chocolate he/she could have got on the pressing of button. The counterargument could be that, that by not pressing the button we are depriving the person of a chance to get a chocolate, which would also be a decision in itself. True, it would be, but usually any sort of inaction is unethical when an action is called for. E.g., if a person walking by your side suddenly feels giddy and extends his/her hand towards you (indicating a demand for assistance), then taking an action (helping) would seem more ethical than inaction (not helping). But imagine, that person is not feeling giddy. In that case, action is not called for, and your not helping (obviously) would not be unethical. I hope, I could explain how this example would apply to depriving a person of a chocolate that he is not needing/desiring by virtue of being asleep. [Of course, it needs to be assumed that he/she will remain sound asleep forever, and not complain after ‘waking up’!] One of the important things I wanted to highlight alongside the original question was:

Most decisions in life have certain risk involved of their turning out wrong, but usually they directly impact the one taking that decision, and not someone else.

I would also like to point out here that dying is not the same as not taking birth. By way of living a life, we become afraid of death and also get, what I call, ‘addicted’ to life. E.g., to have never had a cell phone is not the same as being robbed off of one’s cell phone. So, keeping this in mind, is it possible to imagine what it would be like to never have been born? If I ask you: “Would you have liked it better to never have been born?”, In all honesty, I cannot answer that question. And if one is able to visualize the situation, and especially respond to it in negative, then, they are severely deluding themselves by (unknowingly) invoking the concept of ‘soul’. But one thing I am certain of is: without taking birth I would have definitely never regretted not taking birth, because ‘regret’ is a feeling that is felt by a conscious mind, which in turn is a function of the brain and that certainly requires one to be alive in the conventional sense of the term! Now, try to answer another similar question: would you regret dying after you die? Again, if one is able to answer such a question, and especially so in affirmative, then their mind is leading them astray. But despite admitting that both the situations cannot be visualized, I do feel a tinge of fear at the prospects of not being born and of dying. This, we can call the ‘fear of not existing’, which I shall shorten to FNE in what follows (perhaps it contributes to our survival instinct as individuals). But again remember, to experience this fear one needs to be alive! Unborn and dead people are not going to feel it! Perhaps, the logic I am trying to illustrate is getting too circular. And perhaps, it is for the same reason we feel grateful to our parents for bringing us to life (and of course, for extending nurture despite the effort and pain it entails), because whenever we think of our parents’ decision, our analysis is tinged with FNE. People feel suicidal if the pain or the effort they experience in process of living overwhelms their FNE.

That was all simply about ethicality (or lack thereof) of decision to have a child. Now, if you could understand my questions and arguments above, think of them at a larger scale – would it have been ‘bad’ had the human species never come into existence? Would it be ‘bad’ if the human species gets extinct? Respectively, “to who it would have been bad?” and “to who it would be bad?” Can the same be said about the existence of the Earth and the Universe? So, is the fact that the Universe exists something special when our FNE is factored in? Just like how we feel grateful to our parents for giving us birth because our thoughts are tinged with FNE, we feel a sense of gratefulness for the existence of our Universe (which had enabled ‘our’ existence in the first place). But who do we feel that gratefulness towards? God, of course! But it is important to note here that, not everyone believes that God exists. Also, it is to be noted that it is humanization of the Universe we indulge in each time we think that whatever exists needs to be created from something, and that thus it needs a creator. Of course, this assumption is unfounded!

But getting to the other arm of the analogy, death, we feel FNE with regard to the humanity as well as towards the Earth. As an example, try to examine your feelings if I say, “the Earth would be hit by a large asteroid 150 years from now, and all life would be destroyed by it”. I guess, most people would feel a sense of dread. Now, make a simple calculation. Assuming, each of your successive progeny become parents at the age of 35; it means, it would be your fourth & fifth generations that would face the wrath of the asteroid. And honestly, who cares about one’s great grandparents, for instance? Meaning, how many of us feel emotionally attached to our great grandparents and great great grandparents (that is four and five generation ‘before’ us for you). But yet, we feel a sense of dread in response to such prophecies, where those getting affected would be four or five generations removed from us. There are two possible reasons for that: one, that we cannot visualize not existing, and we always subconsciously assess things as if they would affect us (thus insinuating a soul-like eternal existence in the process); and two, that perhaps we feel for humanity and Earth, what we feel for our ‘self’. Meaning, I am humanity, and I am Earth (okay, that sounds funny, but I cannot explain it better). And it is for this reason that we invest so much in future to try to save our planet from destruction, when perhaps the fact is that such ‘destruction’ would not affect us, nor some of the generations that immediately follow us.

In my analysis, I have obviously not considered the fact that it is not possible to consult unborn children, nor the fact that if everyone would start thinking like me, the human species could get extinct! As you might appreciate, those two concerns do not figure in the equation of ethics here. So if you are confused whether to marry or not, and then, whether to have a child or not, I hope I have been able to assure that if by your not producing children, you fear that you might be contributing to the extinction of the human species, then your fear is unfounded! 😉

I believe with this post I have crudely dealt with:

1. The ethicality of decision to have a child.
2. Why we think there needs to be a creator for the Universe to exist.
3. Why we fear for damage to and/or extinction of the human species and the Earth.

Disclaimer: I am unmarried [and if the one reading this is a woman of my age who would be ready to marry me and put up with rants as above, then she can consider this as an advertisement! 😉 ], and this doubt (doubt about ethicality of having a child) does not have much to do with my own life, but I cannot get the doubt out of my mind. Of course, what I eventually conclude would influence my wanting to have a child or not, but of course that would have to be in consultation with my then spouse.

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20 thoughts on “Ethics in Tangents: Part 2 – Ethicality and False sense of Obligation of Producing Children

    • Yes, lost scotoma, I didn’t think of adoption. That is a good idea as far as this predicament is concerned on a personal front, but from philosophical point of view, what you would be hesitant to do, someone else had already done for you! In fact, if one abandons one’s child (of course, not all orphans are abandoned), it is much worse a thing to do, because one bringing a human to life without consent is not even willing to take responsibility!

  1. first i don’t think your post is weird. since i think thought along those lines, also on the number of children etc.

    but first there is no guarantee that just because we want a child we will get one, and i include the option of artificial insemination .

    and not all get addicted to life, since we have suicides.

    and the options are not pleasant unpleasant like chocolate and pin prick. its a combination of both.
    and then there is a comparision. a pin prick might be awful for some, but for others that would be mild compared to an axe affect:D

    and you r focussing on only the physical aspect instead of the spiritual hmmm soul aspect.

    unless i bring in the spiritual factor i can’t argue with u more on this.

    ps : when my first born was diagnosed with TGA I had to decide if I should opt for surgery or let the child live with the condition for a few years with whatever the consequences.

    • Wise Donkey,

      Yes, I am aware of your personal struggle in this regard. So obviously, you must have pondered a lot on these issues.

      I had mentioned suicide also in the post – almost for the same reason as you did. But I would say that people attempt suicide not because they find nothing attractive in life, but because the amount of pain they experience makes life unattractive for them.

      Spiritual aspect (Which posits the existence of soul or afterlife) is man’s invention to overcome the the fear of not existing (FNE).

      Thanks a lot for commenting!

      Take care.

  2. Incorrectly narrow analogy.
    Your button press doesn’t give a random chocolate or pin-prick. Actually the button press gives you two boxes. One with a pin, one with a chocolate, marked with correct labels. Each of your subsequent actions unwraps one gift or the other, little by little. Its your parenting skills that (to an extent) decide what the kid gets.

    I’ll give an analogy to your question. I want to take my girlfriend on a drive. Should I start the car or not? Oh no, if I start the car, we might fall off the cliff! Of course, we could also reach a resort!

    But is it as random as that? Its me who is going to drive us and take us to the right place. So its about “Do I want to?” and “Do I reasonably believe I can?”

    Yes possibility of accidents, break-down and even break-up is possible on the way. But that doesn’t mean simply don’t go.

    One doesn’t stop making/buying computers just because viruses could attack them. So many good things could happen before the virus hits. You could successfully write so many blog posts before that. And of course you try your best to protect with a good anti-virus and it usually works.

    Idea is simple. If you want kid, and you think you can do a good job of parenting, go for it. Then you are fairly sure to end up giving a chocolate rather than pin-prick. If either of two things is missing, don’t.

    And again statistically, most deaths are not by suicide. So people do like their life to one extent or another. So it seems chances are more of giving chocolate. But yes flavour of chocolate may differ, like the Forrest Gump’s mama’s proverbial box of chocolates.

    And of course you may not be able to open the box of pin/chocolate completely. You can show the person what opens what. And of course there will be chocolates/pins coming to that person from other persons. You could to an extent teach to recognize which box holds what and how to avoid pin box, seek chocolate box.

    But bottomlime. If you think you want and can, go for it and try to follow through too.

    • Stupidosaur,

      I get your point. Yes, depending on one’s parenting skills, and more so, the country and society one is born in, life-events could be pleasurable or painful.

      But the comparison of pleasures that could be accrued is not merely with pain, but the option that nothing would be experienced at all!

      In the car analogy you gave, it might seem like a bad idea to not start the car, because otherwise one would get “bored” just sitting in the car. But in case of not taking birth, there is no parallel of getting bored.

      Of course, what decision one takes is dependent on one’s personal dispositions, but at the time when I wrote the above post and even now, I would like to err on the side of not taking a decision, most importantly, because I would be taking that decision on behalf of someone else, whose wishes and dispositions I have no idea of.

      Of course, despite these predicaments, I might end up having a child. In which case, I would try to justify my decision by trying to keep the child happy with no reason to complain (something that you also pointed out).

      Thanks for reading and the elaborate comment!

  3. In fact, this is one of the reasons I haven’t had a kid. I have no right to decide to create a life – what if my children curse me later on?

    But I don’t think one is deluding oneself by wishing they hadn’t been born. Sometimes a lack of something is preferable to a negative if you know what I mean. That’s why some people kill themselves in spite of the natural urge to live.

    And believe me, I too have felt miserable knowing that one day all will just die out – even the universe itself. And then darkness will rule forever. I got really depressed and wrote a blo post on it.

    But then I realized something. The laws of physics because of which the universe will end are the very same laws that make it live right now! So it’s life and death…or just nothing…

    And that made me feel better cause I’m lucky to be here I’m the first place. Wishing to live forever is just greed 🙂

    • Hi, Bhagwad,

      Welcome to the new blog!

      You said: “Sometimes a lack of something is preferable to a negative if you know what I mean. That’s why some people kill themselves in spite of the natural urge to live.”

      Actually, that was the crux of my post! Perhaps, in all that double-negatives the point was lost.

      Hahaha! You know, two occasions when I really felt disturbed was on realizing that all our thoughts and emotions are merely owing to movements of chemicals (neurotransmitters) and when I realized the same thing as you did – fundamental purposelessness of life. On realizing the first thing I was depressed for 3 to 4 days, but the second thing kept me depressed for almost a month!

      I had actually read the post you have linked a few weeks back. Will read it again and comment in some time.

      Thanks!

  4. Like commenter 1 said, Adopt. Most children are abandoned, very few are relinquished. People did not always choose to have the child, in most cases they probably did not choose or have a choice. And I refuse to hear judgment for a birth parent who took care to ensure that the child got a good home, despite the costs to them.

    On another note, if a child could curse me later and therefore I decide not to have a child, I would probably not get married because I could get divorced/upset partner/be upset myself. Or step out into the road because I could be hit by a bus. If I don’t step outside my home, I can’t really have a child – they like to go out. And if I am hit by a bus, the question is answered for me! 😀

    • Sangitha,

      Thanks! It’s always nice to get a perspective from those who’re already parents or are married; I am none. 😀

      I’m not questioning whether children would be happy or not (which is one of the issues), but bigger of the ethical concerns is that I would be deciding on behalf of someone else. What right have I got to decide on behalf of someone else, when the all the consequences of my decisions would be faced by them, without their entrusting me this authority to decide on their behalf in the first place?

      Yes, adoption seems a good idea out of this ethical dilemma (for those who face it; seems, very few people think on these lines).

      And somehow, it never occurred to me that if one does not want to have child(ren), then one does not have to get married. 😀

      • You decide for someone every day. When you just do a job, you decide what someone coming after you will maintain. When you vote and happen to be in the majority, you have decided for someone else who could very well be pissed at your decision. Things are also decided for you every day somewhere – when a pharma company prioritizes one drug over another based on their internal limitations/resources, one cure get a leg up at the expense of another.

        I would have children for exactly that reason – that I could have a bigger say and make a bigger difference and put my learning and education to use better than some and worse than others.

        By the way, there’s a comma between the children and getting married part. I did not connect the two.

        • Thanks Sangitha again!

          Am sorry, was out of town so didn’t respond in these many days.

          Yes, you’re right that we decide for others in many cases, but yet in few instances there is a choice. E.g., the person coming after you has a choice to not come after you and take up some other job, or can communicate in real-time what his/her expectations are, which depending upon your personality, you might act upon or you might not.

          Again, with regard to drug companies, what you point out is right, but again it is entirely their prerogative to decided what drugs to work upon and what not to, using their own resources. Also, you have the choice of doing your own research and thus to be independent of the drug companies. The drug companies do not force their drugs down upon you. You choose to use their drugs. The same cannot be said about life of a child, who is never asked whether he/she would like to have ‘life’ the way patient is ‘asked’ if he/she would like to have a particular drug.

          With regard to democracy what you have pointed out is correct; there exists a flaw. Yet, the impact of who is getting elected is in limited areas of life. I am not saying these impacts are insignificant, but they are not as all-encompassing as a decision like whether to create a life or not in the first place. Moreover, if majority of people are *really* disgruntled with this kind of democracy, then they have the option of replacing the system with some other better system if it were to exist. Additionally, each time you vote differently from the majority, at least you are getting an opportunity to appeal to people that they reconsider their decision. An unborn child gets no such chance. Also, if your reasons for preferring one candidate to the other are valid, and backed by irrefutable facts, perhaps, you also get an opportunity to point out to others why your decision is better. Again, decision to have a child does not follow these kinds of discussions, and even if they were to happen, the child is never party to such discussions. 🙂

          As to how to read what you wrote of not getting married, if one would not like to have children I still could not make out what other interpretation is possible. 🙂 Sorry.

          Take care.

  5. There are situations when it is okay to take a call without full discussion. Every decision cannot be negotiated – nothing will get done then. Also, even if negotiation on all levels was the way to go, it is only possible when all parties have a minimum basic level of rational thinking/ability to take logic and make the call.

    The fact that a child does not choose to be born is added responsibility on the parent to ensure that they made the decision after enough thinking through, not a deterrent.

    And the interpretation I meant in my previous comment was that if I were to not have a child because it could curse me later, the same logic would prevent me from getting married because I could get divorced later. And we know that going into a relationship fearing the worst is one sure way to make the worst manifest asap! 😀

    Beyond logical reasoning and rationality is faith and intangibles that your logic can not account for. I would not have known until I went through it. It is clearer to me now on the other side, after the plunge! Also, before I had time to think more, now we just do! 😀

    • Sangitha,

      We do take calls without discussions, and sometimes there might be no option but to do so. But at least in this case it seems there is an option to not take the call.

      I agree that those who choose to have children are very highly obliged to try to keep their children happy, and provide what the children upon growing up would consider the best of the nurtures possible. Perhaps, what you have overlooked in the entire blog post is the false sense of ‘obligation’ (to continue the family/human species) many people seem to experience because of which they give birth to children. If it is this kind of obligation that provokes them into procreation, then, I feel it is highly unfair.

      Again, what I would like to point out about marriage is (at least theoretically), the prospective spouse has the option of not marrying. 🙂

      I would not call ‘faith’ what you are referring to, perhaps, ’emotional’ factors would be more appropriate?

      Anyway, it is not a case that I have decided I will not have children, but this ethical problem will indeed trouble me for quite some time. And especially so, if my kids would not be happy with their life.

      I think we have exhausted all lines of reasoning and emotional appeal. 🙂 I do not hold it against those parents who try their best to bring up their children.

    • Sangitha, again!

      Yes, when you had replied, unfortunately, I was still fiddling around with the blog template and settings, and am sorry for the inconvenience caused. I hope now the blog is more readable. Also, you might notice I have added flickr stream links. Though, I would not claim that the pics are particularly attractive. 😀

      Thanks for the feedback, nevertheless. 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. It is indeed interesting. I did consider this kind of questioning when I had my child, but it didn’t “stick”. It came up and it fell to my questioning almost immediately. Frankly, I did not think as deeply, and I don’t know if it is my place to do it.

    To me, I don’t have the power over another’s life includes all this questioning for or against. If I don’t have the authority to decide, I don’t have the authority to turn it into a muse. It is not my business. It is not my place to be more than the biological being I am and investigate futures and pasts and the thoughts of a (yet) non-existent child. Not in a religious sense, but in a logical sense. If I have no control over something, and there is no way to predict the success of the choice I make, it is futile to make decisions based on that. I might as well use data I KNOW.

    I wanted a child. For entirely selfish reasons. Had nothing to do with whether he wanted born or not. I wanted him born. I also think the question is absurd. We do not know the future, and it is only going to be a case of analysis-paralysis if we hypothesize for every option. Reality anyway is guaranteed to be utterly different, or at least far more nuanced so that such plans don’t cover it.

    To me, the main question was why I wanted a child, rather than whether I had the right. I had the organs. I had the desire, therefore I had the right by virtue of being me like every dog on the street and queen in a castle.

    The question of why was somewhat harder to own up to. Like every garden variety egotist, I wanted two things. One was someone really close, intimate and DEPENDENT. I needed to be needed. I was horribly lonely. I wanted to nurture. The second was that I wanted to show my parents that a child could be raised in freedom and joy. A kind of “you were wrong and you destroyed me” point to make, which has since become irrelevant.

    I spoke with many people as a part of thinking things through, and I found that the most common reason actually was wanting a monument to themselves. Which was the point where I started feeling indignant on behalf of all kids, and really looking at where they were being messed with for people’s selfish gains, and the initial discovery was hideous. I found that almost everyone claimed to love their child, and almost no one acted in a way that could be described as love.

    I realized that I was not the only one, and I started seeing this as a much larger problem. larger than me, my parents, my grudges, even larger than this child. It became important to support the existence of an empowered child in this world as a service to the world.

    And the rest is history. Nisarga (my son) was born on 2nd Sept 2009.

    • Vidyut,

      Welcome to my blog!

      First off, I must say, not we can, but we *must* think about the decision to have a child or not, because the birth of a child is a consequence of conscious choices we make. But having said that, I’m not making value judgement of what ought to be the ‘correct’ decision. As you said, the answer to whether have a child or not is bound to be lot more nuanced than the analogy I provided above. The irony is I, myself and Bhagwad above for whom I am sort of choosing to speak are quite content people! 🙂 I value my life for reasons even beyond FNE. Though my predicaments have remained the same, I’m relieved I will leave the decision if and when to have a child absolutely on my wife if and when I have one. 😀 Also, I’m not averse to having a child, but it’s just the fear of experiencing a guilt that makes me jittery, because guilt is one feeling that I just cannot handle.

      I respect you for your honesty in this matter. The only thing I want parents to understand is that their child had *not* asked them to bring him/her to life, so their responsibilities to ensure his/her welfare (which in my opinion largely includes progeny’s happiness – both as a child and later as an adult) are very high indeed.

      I think whatever way we look at it, the fact that we bring children to life for selfish purpose cannot be easily countered. But then if we are honest about it, I’m sure our children will understand and not ‘blame’ us for that. Also, this honesty will hopefully make us more responsible as adults. 🙂

      Thanks for an honest, elaborate comment!

  7. People, especially in India have children because they have to. If they don’t, something is lacking / wrong with them. Having children after marriage is like going from 5th class to 6th class. It’s mandatory /norm in our society.
    Whether you can afford it, are ready for it, can be a good parent is never given a thought.
    I agree with you totally that one needs to think before having a child & is responsible for giving them a good environment to grow in, as the child did not ask to be born.

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